Symposium:  ‘Interpreting Interpretation – how musicians reflect on their making of musical meaning’

 - by Darla Crispin


Introduction – why interpretation matters:

Interpretation is a fundamental trait of the human condition; we constantly interpret the world to make sense of our relationship to it and to our fellow inhabitants.  One of the functions of the arts is to provide us with metaphors that sharpen our interpretative faculties for the ongoing experience of living.

Interpretation in the arts therefore has two related, but crucially distinct, meanings: on the one hand, it refers to the process by which an art-object or art-performance generates in the perceiver/listener an understanding of itself, including the shaping of music through playing, listening and empathy; on the other, it describes the practice of hermeneutics which, applied to music and in the words of Lawrence Kramer, ‘seeks to show how music works in the world by interpreting both music and musical performances in language.  To interpret music verbally is to give it a legible place in the conduct of life’ (Kramer 2011,1). 

For the project ‘The Reflective Musician’, both of these meanings are relevant.  The project operates on and across the boundary between the verbal and non-verbal realms and explores both how reflection may enrich musical performance and performance stimulate reflection.  Interpretation is therefore a natural focus for the project, and in spring 2015, it was selected as the core topic for discursive and performative exchanges.  Contributors from within the project group itself and others outside it were invited to reflect upon the nature of interpretation with respect to their own work.  An additional aim of this approach was to take the core researchers outside their own paradigms, and thus to make more clear the sense of plurality that lies within the language and actions that surround interpretation. The constellation of propositions that resulted delineates a field which can be modelled with a view to placing the ‘Reflective Musician’ project in a broader and richer context.

To begin to sketch this broader context, it is useful to review some of the statements and debates that have been generated by the subject of musical interpretation, especially in more recent years.

How interpretation has been treated in musical discourse:

Lawrence Kramer’s monograph on Interpreting Music, referred to above, begins by stating that ‘This is a book about musical hermeneutics.  A generation ago, no one would have wanted to write it’ (Kramer 2011,1).  Despite this, the more general subject of interpretation as it pertains to musical performance has a rich context of exploratory thought.  It is the core of several key texts that articulate a range of approaches: from modelling the ontological and historical aspects of the idea (Goehr 2007) to resisting the idea [of interpretation and hermeneutics] altogether: ‘In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art’ (Sontag 1964, 1994, 14).

But as far as music practitioners, whether creators or performers, are concerned, this complex literature would appear to be a mixed blessing.  On the one hand, there is an acknowledgment that composition and performance are both concerns that extend beyond their specific disciplinary boundaries, such that composition, especially with electronic media, overlaps with realisation while performance partakes of a portion of creation.  On the other hand, the intricate claims of some of these discussions are often frustrating to those who actually make music - particularly when made by those who have little or no concrete experience either of artistic creation or practice.  In the more extreme manifestations of this situation, perceptions of mutual inadequacy – the practitioners of what is written and the writers of what is created and performed - threaten to stifle innovation; risk-taking is circumscribed, performances made more uniform and writing is driven back to scholarly norms.

But with the rise of artistic research, in which specific aspects of embodied practice become integral to the communication of research outcomes (see Borgdorff 2012), there have been concerted efforts to breach the rhetorical gap between ideas about music and musical ideas.  Nevertheless, these efforts have tended to fall either on the side of surrendering the art-nature of the work in favour of the imperatives of theory or on that of keeping theory at a distance and creating highly reflexive working situations that, some would assert, have questionable status as research.

Significantly, this situation as it pertains to interpretation is currently undergoing significant changes.  Because the notion of interpretation is so prominent, albeit often problematically within learning and teaching environments for musicians – especially the conservatoires– a number of advanced initiatives employing novel performance practices linked with research expositions have placed the topic of interpretation at the centre of their focus.  These include ‘Radical Interpretations of Musical Works’, an NMH-based research project led by Ivar Frounberg and Kjell Tore Innervik and based around new performances of contemporary standard works, and the international project ‘Music Experiment 21 - – led by Paulo de Assis at the Orpheus Institute, Ghent, Belgium.  Moreover, other artistic research projects in music are appearing in JAR, as a developments-in-practice. 

For example, Lasse Thoresen proposes that the dichotomy is potentially overcome through a phenomenological orientation.  Within the Norwegian Academy of Music, methods and theory for such an approach have been worked out by the Aural Sonology Project. Many supposedly unsolvable questions becomes possible to deal with if one accepts a phenomenological point of view, which means the researcher must also review his mind-set - ‘reflective listening’ (see Thoresen 2015).

‘The Reflective Musician’ and interpretation:

While the research project ‘The Reflective Musician’ includes an inquiry into interpretation as one of the project aims, it has differed from the approaches mentioned above in its manner of presentation.  Most, though not all, of the material has been performed in standard concert conditions and formats.  This has meant that amongst the outcomes of the project was a set of critiques of the factors that prevail in such conditions: the limitations of rehearsal time, the consequent reluctance to experiment, the inflexibility of performative roles and the sometimes rigid, unquestioning adherence to the tenets of Werktreue/Texttreue.  

These general problems have coalesced into more specific challenges for the research outcomes of the project:

1) Contradictions between ‘method’ and the qualities of reflective practice;

2) The reception double-bind, in which the placement of performances as research outcomes within public concert environments (and thus outside the immediate control of the artist-researchers) meant that the same performance was required to articulate its research context, while still meeting the artistic criteria of concert standards.  Unsurprisingly, not every performance/research outcome was judged successful on both counts.  In particular, the related but distinct expectations of interpretative reading and informative explication did not always sit comfortably alongside one another. 

The best way to ensure understanding of the research context might have been attendance by audiences of events ancillary to the performances (e.g. seminars on the works) yet these might have lacked interest for a standard audience.  In essence, unless the performance absolutely articulates the essential nature of the research question, and unless this can be demonstrated to audiences in terms of the apprehension of ‘difference’ in the interpretation that is laid out before them, then viable conclusions become difficult.  Within the project, the approaches that circumvented this problem were either those that employed clear analytical-performance links, well-illustrated open rehearsal work, unorthodox curation of established works, or those in which new materials – new compositions - were presented. 

Four video examples:

Video in Bartok-Brahms section of exposition

Brahms Op. 118 section of exposition

Nils Henrik Asheim – Festival video no. 13.4 | Vertavo open rehearsal 

3) Matters of ‘quality’ – assertions concerning improved quality through processes of reflection were not always obvious in non-comparative performance situations.  But questions concerning the nature of what constitutes quality in performance became a major concern of the group, and in particular, the group leader [link to Håkon Austbø s article on ‘Quality’].  Putting aside the complex nature of any discourse on ‘quality’ (Pirsig 1974), the project was often caught in a bind concerning “which” quality was being evaluated: research quality or performance quality.


Despite the difficulties, with respect to what is needed within the current conservatoire model and, specifically, in relation to explorations of the ‘standard’ repertoire – classical, romantic and early twentieth century canonical works - the project’s focus has been of profound importance.  The questions raised within this repertoire, and the necessity of sharing the experience of ‘difference’ (between ‘informed performances’ and others) have pointed up the need both for new attitudes by, and towards, audiences and for new kinds of research paradigms.  

Research in a conservatoire:

The types of culture clash between research-oriented and artistic endeavours – especially in the ‘marketplace’ of the public concert – that were discussed above are echoed within the curricula of the conservatoires that feed the profession.  While higher music education should remain a protected space for developing unorthodox and original approaches to musical performance and composition, the stresses of market concerns in all their forms increasingly colour the nature of such education.   Conservatoire education is supposed to prepare its participants for professional life – whatever such a life might entail.  As future musical interpreters, conservatoire students should develop a sophisticated sense of what interpretation is; yet, it still remains the case that the theories around interpretation are generally formed not in conservatoires, but in universities, and in a manner set apart from those for whom interpretation is integral to their practice.  More than a decade of artistic research work taking place in conservatoires has not definitively remedied this rhetorical gap.

Take, for example, the notion of the score as ‘embodying the composer’s intentions’.  Taken literally, this idea is read as an impossibility, and therefore an outmoded and absurd construction.  But the shorthand use of this phrase within the musical practice of conservatoires does contain meanings that potentially have merit: the stretching out of imagination beyond the limits of the self through the signs of the score; the notion of the score as communicative tool; the idea that the score can convey both musical material and aspects of its historicity, and the sense of the score as being a thing of value in itself, whether sounded or not.  Unduly dismissive attitudes towards an admittedly potentially naïve faith in the power of the score, or rejection of the intrusion of questions of method into a theoretical discourse, can sometimes nullify creative research potential within conservatoires.  This is unfortunate, since some of the most novel questions will come from the practitioners who are also able to realise their art to a high level.

How practitioners interpret interpretation:

Practitioners are not short of views on these subjects; what they often lack is a suitable channel through which to express and disseminate them.  This is where the symposium came in.  Its format and approach was deliberately open.  Contributors were free to use the framework of the symposium to express themselves in whatever way felt most comfortable to them.  They did so without prior reference to each other’s viewpoints and the symposium itself became the forum in which ideas and actions came together and interacted.

As a complement to the symposium itself, this written document serves both to record the event and, in keeping with the spirit of the project itself, to reflect upon what was said and presented and order some of this material under thematic strands that highlight the interaction of ideas.

The reflections of the participants:

The following section consists of extracts from those who participated in the Symposium.  These range across methods drawn from personal approaches, statements of belief or manifestos, and meta-theories concerning interpretation.  The statements do not, in themselves, articulate a unified set of views, but rather a constellation of notions around interpretation whose strength is in their diversity.  This, in turn, gives a sense of the cultural milieu around interpretation, as this concept is understood within the specific environment of NMH.

1) Personal insights and methods

Håkon Stene:

In my artistic research project This is Not a Drum: Towards a Post-Percussive Practice (undertaken at the Norwegian Academy of Music from 2010-2014), I was interested in rethinking fundamental habits of interpretation, beyond conventional, literal faithfulness to the musical text (Texttreue). Through four case studies of older works, some of them iconic New Music works, (Helmut Lachenman’s Pression, for solo cello (1969); Brian Ferneyhough’s Bone Alphabet (1991), for solo percussion; Vinko Globokar’s Toucher (1973) for speaking performer; Michael Pisaro’s Ricefall (2004), for falling rice on objects, I applied a concept of multiple interpretations of single works, desiring to expand each interpretation beyond the micro-levels of the musical notation.

Questioning the historical, sealed work concept, I suggested alternative models of performing the works I selected in the hope of throwing new light on their musical potential. Whilst departing from both analytical and intuitive perspectives, following ideas that had resulted from years of performing these works as well as listening to their recorded history, I was particularly interested in taking interpretational liberties that seemed entirely speculative, but which were rooted in informed readings of the material itself. This work included rewriting the musical scores, altering form and instrumentations, as well as stylistic transcriptions.  

Håkon Austbø:

True interpretations should be the result of deep penetration into the work in question, and not of speculation as to its likely success or acceptance by the public, critics and agents or of subservience to conventions established by some tradition.

For me, analysis has always been at the core of this process of penetration, but I have constantly been refining my tools in order to uncover the structural forces at play in the music and to gain insights into what drove the composer to write the work. This process is primarily an intellectual one but, if well conducted, it will unleash hidden emotional forces and thus elevate the work within me.

The work I have undertaken as part of The Reflective Musician project has, if anything, deepened my understanding of how analysis may inform interpretation.  It has also made me more convinced than ever that this is a process that is, in essence, co-creative.

Olaf Eggestad:

I remember very well when I first became aware of the implications and potential of the concept of interpretation. At that point I had already been playing the piano for many years. However, my interpretative ‘moment of truth’ occurred when I was some 9 years old and about to perform [recite] Henrik Wergeland’s poem, Til min Gyldenlak (To my Wallflower, Erysimum cheiri) before my classmates and our parents.  The poem from Wergeland’s Deathbed Suite is as such firmly situated in the realm of romantic idealism, and is indeed very touching. Nevertheless, preparing it for performance, pronuntiatio, taught me a basically twofold, epoch-making lesson: Firstly, that reality is not singular, and that you may make up and constitute new realities solely by the power of performance. Wergeland’s poem took on, or should I say induced, widely different meanings and emotional contents according to my – or anyone’s – recitation. Thus, my ‘interpretive turn’ coincided with my ‘performative turn’. 

But the second wisdom to extract from the experience was just as important, namely that interpretation – in this context close to the traditional hermeneutical meaning upon encountering the written text – proved to be a tool for penetrating beyond the surface level, carving out or elucidating aspects, facets, contents and depths, as it felt, that are not obvious or immediately grasped. 

The first wisdom has a constructionist bend, the second somewhat an essentialist one. To me, the concept of interpretation then seemed to be the impetus behind a horizontal and a vertical movement respectively: One distributive, vouching for pluralism, and one centripetal, vouching for possible unity at a deeper level…

The pursuit of interpretation is probably a pursuit of relevance and, at that, a relevance transcending two opposite dogmatisms: 1) claiming that all utterances are equally interesting simply by virtue of being performed, and 2) clinging to singularities, e.g. those reflected in the search for a monolithic and exclusive truth deep down inside an art work. 

2) Statements of beliefs, manifestos

Christian Eggen: ‘Right’ objectives for interpreters (after Constantin Stanislavski: An Actor Prepares, 1936/2013).

1. As an interpreter, you must be firmly situated on ‘our side of the footlights’. In other words, your primary impulse should be directed toward the music or the other musicians, and not towards the listeners from the perspective of ‘crowd-pleasing’.

2. The interpretations you create should spring from personal experience and yet be appropriate, in a way that can resonate for everybody, to the music being played.

3. They must focus on creative and the artistic aspects, because their function should be to fulfil the main purpose of our art: to penetrate the soul of the work and render it in artistic form.

4. They should be real, live, and human; not dead, conventional, or theatrical.

5. They should be truthful so that you yourself, the musicians playing with you, and your audience can all believe in them.

6. They should have the quality of attracting and moving both the other participants and the listeners; to do this, they should first move you.

7. They must be clear-cut and characteristic of the music you are playing. They must tolerate no vagueness. They must be distinctly woven into the fabric of the composition.

8. They should have value and content, corresponding to the inner body of the work. They must not be shallow, or skim along the surface.

9. They should be active, pushing the music ahead and not letting it stagnate.

Nils Henrik Asheim:

1 - Music is never only music -   

First, there is the score. Then, there is the knowledge about how, historically, the music was meant to be played. This, in turn, is enriched but also confused by new knowledge of how the music was understood in later periods. 

But then there is the issue of music being used for a purpose - to impress, to please, to confirm, to organize people. And finally, there is music itself as action, a body, the arm with the violin bow, a person acting towards another. In all these ways, music has already left the score.

2 - Music is never perfect -

There are trivialities in masterworks, gaps that needed to be filled just to keep the musical structure. There are passages that are not important at all, because something important will follow.

And then, there are the shortcuts in the writing, the easy solutions because of time pressures. There are the restrictions upon the composer: the availability and limitations of instruments, the conventions of the public. And no score is the ideal one. 

3 - Music is never one truth -

Each note in a composition is the result of a subjective choice. Every new note is a bifurcation. To us, after hundred years, the work seems untouchable, predestined. 

But it is our repeated listening that betrays us. The 600 pages of sketches to Beethoven's opus 131 could accidentally have stopped at number 200. And we would still see the piece as his final message, mistaken for absolute truth.

4 - Music is never alone -

In every piece of music there are echoes of others. Within academic styles, there are popular idioms; within the avant-garde there is archaism. There is music of the North and of the South, music flowing with and flowing against. And all exist in the same water, no music is alone. 

All this points towards multiple readings of music, which should lead to multiple interpretations. For me, it often leads to re-composing. 

I am working hard to understand my own position in relation to old music. It is almost like trying to remember a dream when one has awoken. I need to find unusual ways to enter the composer's space, before he shuts the book. And in this tiny moment of light, I will try to do something really precise.

Tor Espen Aspaas

(ANTI)CREDO, a statement on interpretation


Why does the challenge of articulating an individual statement on interpretation cause me to think in dichotomies? Why is my primary impulse to consider the negative ends of its polarizations: to think about what interpretation is not and what it should not be?


This tendency might stem from feeling increasingly ill-at-ease with the status quo of today’s communicative and curatorial practices – or the lack of such practices. To quote the Bard: “Ay, there’s the rub” – lack thereof… Hence the negatives.

I identify the main problem to be the primacy of a monologue-based definition of interpretation, a residue of logocentric ideas from the Romantic era, increasingly distorted with time. This definition establishes a one-direction, top-to-bottom hierarchy that implies a constant falling-away and decay as Art flows in essence from its divine source of inspiration, via the mind of a genius, through canonical text, which is then mediated by the congenial performer before it eventually trickles down to a spectator in its most diluted form.

Few would subscribe openly to this metaphoric structure, but it still wields great power in established practices, especially within mainstream segments. 

As a result, interpretation gravitates toward the reductive – the intra-subjectively centred – the uncommunicative.

Tentative credo

Interpretation should not be reductive, limiting, finalizing. It should be open-ended, should strive for diversity and encompass work-in-progress. Interpretation should be inter- and transdisciplinary-minded; it should seek to converge and resonate with other artistic-intellectual expressions and paradigms in order to expand its domain.

Interpretation is not a private, intra-subjective, asymmetrical process. 

Like practice, it is inter-subjective, situated within a network of actors on a basis of equality. The so-called audience consists of individual co-creators, not a passive mass of spectators. 

If it fails to communicate, it does not merit the name of interpretation. 

Interpretation is not a one-way street – it is an interplay of constantly shifting centres. 

Do we, as performers, need to ‘outsource’ parts of the interpretative process?

Do we need to expand and multiply its hermeneutical circles?


I believe that interpretation vastly transcends the interpreter.  

3) Broader delineations concerning the nature of interpretations (meta-theories)

Emil Bernhardt:

1) When we appreciate a performance of music, we appreciate it because it is an interpretation (not only a reproduction). It is developed with a certain consciousness about what may be called, however problematically, the ‘essence’ of the work. That means it is not only a result of, for example, private fascinations at a certain moment. But at the same time we appreciate a performance because it transcends the notion of interpretation in terms of something self-consciously placed before us and understood in terms of straight-forward technique or method. In order to reach the ‘essence’ of the work, we need to feel that the means by which this is achieved are transparent and that only the result impinges on our consciousness.

2) The perfection, or even ‘fetishizing’ (Adorno) of interpretation is, on the one hand, a modern phenomenon, but at the same time an attempt to escape the modern discipline mechanism, the specializing differentiation (Adorno). How should we understand the role of ‘thinking’ in this?

I understand ‘interpretation’ as a conscious approach towards the musical work. The question is how to understand this particular consciousness – which is, of course, closely related to the concept of ‘thinking/reflection’ that features in the title of this project.

Ingfrid Breie Nyhus:

Interpretation as Tradition as Past and Future 

Tradition is both past and future. Many folk musicians say that they seek to hold back their own ‘self’ when playing or singing a traditional tune. I have heard this described as a moving from one’s exterior face to an underlying mask, a mask within, that is a sub-layer to one’s every-day, prevailing features. These folk musicians experience that, through this, they find a voice, a position, that can integrate into the entirety of ancient voices, all those voices that have preceded one’s own, those that have slowly carried the tradition forward. The voice resides in something larger than itself.

The underlying mask resounds with all these old voices, but at the same time there are cracks – the personal breaks through, features of the individual are visible. The unique, that which represents this single human being today, fuses with the inherited. The old and the new, the universal and the subjective, commonly shared and the personal, all talk through one and the same voice. It is a continuous play of nuances between the two poles, and the performer owns the key to the balancing and shading involved…

Tradition concerns both the past and the future. It is dependent on a constant re-drafting of the material that time has carried. The new projections, and thus directions into the future, are shaped by how we as musicians choose to balance the heteroglossia of the shared elements and our own traits and choices. 

The importance of context and value for research: A synthesis serving as an ‘open conclusion’: Lasse Thoresen:

Music is not a noun, it is a verb.  It is a dynamic event, a process that unfolds in time and sound. Music only appears as music when this process unfolds in the presence of one or more listener.  That presence must be a living presence - an act of communion rather than of communication.

The concept of interpretation is only interesting in so far as it can be separated from the work itself.  In most music cultures this is not a duality in the way that it is in Western classical music - which is our context.  With us, interpretation becomes a question, and a problem, because the work is rigidly fixed in a score and the composer and performer often are two different persons - perhaps even living in different times.

However, the idea of the musical work, distinct from its many performances, can also be found in oral cultures (e.g. in Norwegian folk music, there exist works with a specific title and recognizable identity independent of their realisation in performance). But when there is no notation, in between performances the work only exists in the memory of individuals; it resides in an invisible, intangible reality. Thus the performance of the work becomes the reappearing or reactivation of a pre-existing, but entirely non-manifested, entity into observable sound-in-time. Interpretation, as a separate aspect, will then be the specific way and the particular features with which this invariable memory becomes manifest on a unique occasion in historic time.

If the interpretation is closely associated with the manifestation of the memory of a work, then I will claim that the memory of the interpreter is a central agent for creating the conditions of a living presence - the criterion I mentioned above for a successful performance.  In a culture of written music the performer may pass quickly from score to motor-activity on his or her instrument, bypassing memory.  So memory – in the way I now am referring to it, would mean the interiorization of the work in the performer’s reflective mind; and this interorization must transcend concerns with performer-technical issues: fingerings, muscular memory of movements, etc.  The musical memory must be activated in the reflective mind as a process of thinking the music as sound-in-time combined with a simultaneous awareness of the thinking process itself. The result of such a process may be a personal interpretation.

A personal interpretation is not necessarily an original interpretation.  Today there is a tendency to regard a classical work as a dead object (a score, a text) that the performer will use as a springboard to promote his own individuality. I do not think that such a motivation is adequate, other than for making a career in conformity with today’s conventional trends. The opposite trend, performing the score in a neutral, even mechanical way, threatens, on the other hand, to wear out the music by associating it with stiffened ritual. More is at stake, provided that the work to be performed has an element of truth connected to it.  I believe in the co-genial interpretation, one in which the energies (the dynamics, the verb) that animated the creator’s thought during the creation of the piece also animate the performer while playing. In this way the duality between the work and the creator is eliminated, and the music may reappear fresh, as if created in the very moment it is performed, in the living presence of the listener.



Borgdorff, Henk. 2012. The Conflict of the Faculties. (Leiden: Leiden University Press).

Goehr, Lydia. 2007. The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works. (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Kramer, Lawrence. 2011. Interpreting Music.  (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press).

Pirsig, Robert. 1974. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. (London: Bodley Head).

Sontag, Susan.  1994. Against Interpretation.  (London: Vintage).

Stanislavski, Constantin. 1936/2013. An Actor Prepares, translated by Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood. (London: Theatre Arts Inc. and Bloomsbury Academic).

Thoresen, Lasse.  2015.  Emergent Musical Forms. (London, Ontario: University of Western Ontario).



"Open rehearsal, Ellen Ugelvik, Bente Leiknes Thorsen" and "Aulaen concert opening"